On December 18, 1941 the Alamogordo Weekly News carried the headline “Oliver M. Lee, 76, Taken By Death.” The article described Lee’s last illness, that he had been in a coma after having suffered a stroke. He had also suffered a heart attack several months prior and had not been active since the incident. The article went on to describe him as “one of the most prominent, respected and picturesque characters” in the Southwest.
(Image credit: Findagrave)
His father, also known as Oliver Lee, had died when young Oliver was only twelve years old and living near Buffalo Gap, Texas. Seven years later in 1884, Oliver, a half brother named Perry Altman and two black hired hands named Ed and Efe came to the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico to seek their fortune, bringing along the rest of the Lee family. Ed and Efe and Lee were loyal to each other. The two, Ed and Efe remained with Lee and worked on his ranches until each of them died. Lee recalled that on their trip from Texas, they brought with them 100 head of horses and he remarked that they didn’t lose a single horse on the way.
After arriving in the Tularosa Basin, the half brothers hired out on neighboring spreads for a few years until they could save enough money to buy their own place. The article said that on the initial trip, near Mescalero they came across William “Cherokee Bill” Kellum. Cherokee Bill had told them about a nearby valley with two canyons, Dog and Escondido Canyons, that would hold 1,000 head of horses if they only had a little fencing. As fortune would have it, in 1893, Lee was able to acquire the Dog Canyon property, now located in what is Otero County in southern central New Mexico. Just as Cherokee Bill had earlier described, it was a natural steeply walled canyon with a water source, a stream, which was a rarity in this part of the Chihuahuan Desert. Lee began to build a ranch house 1898 that still stands today, though it has not been actively used as a residence for many years. Lee began his ranching operation raising horses, adding cattle as the operation grew. He became well known for his shooting abilities as well as for being an astute cattleman.
Although the 1941 article did not mention it, Lee’s life was not without controversy. In 1888, a ranch hand of his, George McDonald, was murdered while on the job looking for strays on the Dog Canyon ranch. Lee believed that Walter Good, the son of another rancher named John Good, was responsible. Later Walter Good’s body was found with fatal bullet wounds to the head. This lead to the Lee-Good range war that went on for a number of years with confrontations between the two clans erupting with regularity. Lee and four others were charged with the murder of Walter Good, but authorities could not make a case.
Lee was also suspected by former sheriff Pat Garrett in the disappearance of Judge A. J. Fountain and his son Henry in 1896, while they were en route from Lincoln to Las Cruces by wagon. Fountain had met a mailman on the trail who reported that Fountain had seen riders trailing him. When Fountain tried to approach them, they rode away. The mailman suggested that they could all three ride to a nearby ranch for the night and then head to Las Cruces together the next day, but Fountain declined and rode off on his own. The empty buckboard was found, but neither the Judge nor the boy were ever seen again.
The cases and the parties had things in common in that Fountain had recently obtained grand jury indictments connected to alleged criminal activities committed during the range war. Lee and other ranchers were named in the indictments, making them suspects in the Fountain case. Lee and two other suspects were serving as deputies of Doña Ana County at the time, so Governor William Thornton sought out Garrett to assist in the investigation in addition to hiring the Pinkerton Agency. Garrett’s fatal shooting of Billy the Kid was well known around the area. Lee initially refused to surrender to Garrett saying that if he surrendered to him, Lee felt that he would not make it in alive. There were some legal maneuvering, including negotiations that created Otero County, putting the case outside Doña Ana County. Lee eventually did turn himself in, was charged, tried and acquitted in a trial in nearby Hillsboro, Sierra County, New Mexico. The jury took eighteen days to hear the evidence but only seven minutes to find him not guilty. In the trial, Lee was defended by Albert Fall who later served as a senator from New Mexico and then served as Secretary of the Interior under President Warren G. Harding.
Fall’s good fortune would not last, as he would be named in the so called “Teapot Dome Scandal.” He was convicted of accepting bribes for leasing Navy oil reserve deposits in Wyoming to certain oil companies at below market prices and without competitive bidding. Fall was the first U. S. cabinet member ever to be convicted of a crime and go to prison. After being a successful attorney, winning an election to the United States Senate and serving on a presidential cabinet, Fall reportedly died penniless.
Oliver Lee’s first cattle company was called the Sacramento Cattle Company. He used the Lazy Double S brand and later also used the Circle Cross brand. At its peak, his holdings reached about one million acres. The Circle Cross brand is still active, though it has not been a Lee family brand for a number of years. After he sold the Dog Canyon ranch, Lee remained in the area, managing his own ranches for many years. He also became active in politics, switching political parties, being elected as a Republican state representative in 1918 and winning two more terms in other districts. He successfully won seats in the state senate in 1926 and 1928 before being defeated in 1932 in a campaign for state land commissioner during what has been described as a Democratic Party landslide in the state.
In addition to his other accomplishments in business, Lee is credited for using his business skills and influence to attract the railroad to the Alamogordo area, leading to Alamogordo’s development. He and his wife, the former Winnie Pocahontas Rhodes of San Antonio, Texas raised a large family, most of whom survived them. Upon his death, Lee was interred in Alamogordo’s Monte Vista Cemetery along with several other members of his family.
In 1940, the State of New Mexico acquired acreage in two tracts of land in Otero County that included key portions of Dog Canyon and the original Lee ranch house. It is of archaeological, historical and ecological significance and was transferred to the State Parks Service. From these lands, the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park was esablished in 1979. The Park is open 365 days a year and offers camping, hiking and scenic views of Dog Canyon and the Tularosa Basin.
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